PARIS (Reuters) - Local movie stars have signed petitions, political parties are split, and sex workers complain the government is doing them out of a living. France is divided over a bid to crack down on prostitution.
Lawmakers will start debating on Friday a bill aimed at stemming prostitution with steep fines to clients - a radical switch from France’s traditionally tolerant stance that will give it some of the toughest legislation in Europe.
It comes just months after the country was similarly split over a move by President Francois Hollande’s Socialist-led government to legalize gay marriage, which he billed as the keynote social reform of his five-year mandate.
“Without the client, there is no prostitution ring, there is no ... trafficking of human beings. That’s the fight we’re waging,” said lawmaker Guy Geoffroy, one of the opposition conservative deputies who have rallied to the draft law.
Some 90 percent of France’s estimated 20,000 to 40,000 prostitutes are foreign, mostly victims of Nigerian, Chinese and Romanian human trafficking networks, the government says.
That is a very different picture from just over a decade ago when only one in five prostitutes were foreign and mafia rings much less omnipresent - one of the main reasons why the law needs tightening, proponents say.
But 50-year old Sandra fumes in her fake fur hat and leopard top and boots that the draft bill is missing the point and will put women like her, a prostitute for 25 years with no pimp, out of work without fighting mafia rings.
“We pay tax, we pay social security contributions. Isn’t there enough unemployment as it is not to put us out of business?” she asked as she waited for clients on a central Paris street.
Raging at the prospect of her clients disappearing for fear of being handed a 1,500-euro fine, she said: “Prostitution itself is not banned. It’s like saying you can open a shop but clients are not allowed to come in.”
While buying and selling sex for money is not banned in France, the act of soliciting is illegal, as is pimping.
French public attitudes tend to be relaxed. A survey by pollster CSA showing that two-thirds of French disagreed with fines for clients, with the rest in favor.
Movie stars like Catherine Deneuve, who played a middle-class housewife who chooses to prostitute herself in the 1960s film “Belle de Jour”, is one of several dozen celebrities who have signed a petition against the law.
Around the corner from the side street where Sandra and a handful of other women say they choose to be, dozens of Chinese prostitutes in mini-skirts or tight trousers await clients.
They won’t talk to journalists and Sandra and her friends say they are “owned” by human trafficking networks. “They (the authorities) would do better to help those poor girls who are not their own boss. They have the means to do it,” said Myriam, also a prostitute for 25 years.
Women’s Rights Minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem disagrees, saying the law will help these women because it will stop making them liable for prosecution for soliciting by putting the blame and criminal charges on clients. Prostitutes will also be entitled to help in finding another job.
“The legislator is there to say what is acceptable or not ... We want to bring down prostitution,” she told France 2 television.
But fellow ministers including Interior Minister Manuel Valls have expressed doubts about the law as it stands, while Socialist lawmakers say the party is unlikely to unanimously back it in the lower house vote due December 4. Hollande’s Green coalition allies and the conservative UMP are also split.
Legislation in France currently lies somewhere between laws in the Netherlands and Germany, where registered sex workers pay taxes and receive health benefits, and Sweden, where clients are already targeted.
But as France considers adopting a much tougher attitude, prostitution in Germany has become a heated political issue once again - 11 years after the country decriminalized prostitution and gave sex workers legal status that allowed them to get health insurance and pensions.
Feminists and others are worried that opening the country to legalized prostitution turned Germany into “the whorehouse of Europe” with tourists and sex workers flocking there.
“It’s become socially acceptable to talk about visits to the brothel. It’s all got out of control. We’ve become a paradise for women trafficking,” activist Alice Schwarzer said.
Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Noemie Olive and Emile Picy in Paris and Erik Kirschbaum in Berlin; Editing by Mark John and Ralph Boulton